Is hydrogen the energy carrier of the future?

Over 20 countries worldwide have adopted hydrogen strategies. These include the development of infrastructure and hydrogen production and transport. More than 30 other countries are supporting national hydrogen projects. As a key element in the great energy transition, hydrogen is expected to contribute to reducing the global carbon footprint of industry and society and drive the transformation to a climate-neutral future.  

Hydrogen can be used as an energy carrier for power generation, heat, industry and mobility. It can also be used to produce fuel for cars, generate electricity in fuel cells, or heat the home – and as a substitute for fossil fuels in chemical and fuel production.  Hydrogen can be used to do everything that oil, coal and natural gas are currently used for – without producing any CO2 when it is converted back into energy. It can also be used as an important storage medium for regenerative energies. This is because surplus electricity – such as that from wind turbines – can be used for electrolysis to produce hydrogen which can be stored and transported. 

But there are also some challenges: More than 95 percent of hydrogen in Europe is currently being produced in processes with high CO2 emissions. The production methods are expensive and energy intensive. The necessary green electricity from wind, solar or hydraulic power for green hydrogen is also not available in sufficient quantities. Another obstacle is that in many countries, the development of the hydrogen economy and transport infrastructure is only just beginning. One example is the major European project, “Important Projects of Common European Interest” (IPCEI) for hydrogen technologies and systems, which includes investments in the production of green hydrogen, hydrogen infrastructure and the use of hydrogen in industry, and for mobility. In addition, not all countries produce enough hydrogen themselves; they have to import it. Hydrogen offers great potential and poses challenges to match.  

What is hydrogen? It is the most abundant chemical element in the universe. Hydrogen is small, light and made up of one proton and one electron. At the same time, it is full of energy: every kilogram of hydrogen contains roughly 2.4 times as much energy as natural gas, for example. But hydrogen must be harnessed: In nature, it is always bound up as a component of larger organic compounds. For production, therefore, water must be split into hydrogen and oxygen using a large amount of energy. This so-called electrolysis is only climate-friendly if sustainably produced energy is used, for example, electricity from the sun or wind. Today, this is done in processes with high CO2 emissions which are also expensive and energy intensive. For hydrogen to contribute to climate protection and the energy transition, this simply has to change. That is the reason why hydrogen production is one of the biggest challenges.  

Good for the climate: green hydrogen from renewable energies

The production methods are classified by color for better differentiation. Only green hydrogen produced from renewable energy is climate neutral. It is the most sensible option in the long term to sustainably reduce CO2 emissions. This is because green hydrogen is produced by using renewable energy to induce electrolysis, the splitting of water into oxygen and hydrogen. No fossil fuels are used, and no CO2 emissions are produced.

Gray hydrogen, on the other hand, is made from natural gas and releases climate-damaging carbon dioxide in the process. On top of this, obtaining and transporting natural gas generates methane emissions. Blue hydrogen is also based on fossil energy sources, which generate carbon dioxide too.

The difference: the CO2 emissions are stored underground or processed and used as a raw material in industry. 

Countries invest in different types of hydrogen

What kind of hydrogen strategies do the individual countries have? Green hydrogen produced through electrolysis using energy from renewable sources and water is especially widespread in southern European countries such as Spain or Italy. Italy and Spain are currently expanding their photovoltaic systems in the renewable energy sector. Germany’s national hydrogen strategy focuses exclusively on the production of green hydrogen. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands rely on blue hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas. The CO2 this emits is captured and stored during production. France is taking a different route. Given its electricity mix, the country has opted for nuclear energy-based hydrogen.  

Many strategies are addressing the goal of a green hydrogen economy on a step-by-step basis: for many countries, gray hydrogen based on natural gas and blue hydrogen with subsequent storage or further processing of the resulting CO2 are a transition on the way to a green hydrogen economy. The European Union, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco are to use hydrogen exclusively from renewable energies as of 2030. France, the United Kingdom, Norway, Japan, South Korea, China, and Australia will all be continuing to use blue hydrogen beyond 2030. Russia and South Korea have incorporated the use of gray hydrogen in their strategies.  

As a new carrier of energy, hydrogen will play an important role in the transition to climate neutrality. However, the emissions generated during production must be significantly reduced and targeted advancements in the development of the hydrogen economy and transport infrastructure will have to be made in many countries simultaneously. Only then can the great potential of this little molecule be fully harnessed so that it can contribute to the great energy transition.